Chardonnay is one of those ‘International’ grapes. Like a jet-setter, it travelled from its original homeland of France and settled very nicely into practically every wine growing region of the globe. It’s adaptable to a host of growing conditions and takes well to the influences of the winemaker. California is one region that has become closely identified with the grape and over the years styles have gone from ‘Burgundian’ to buttery oak bombs to wines that have seen no oak at all.
Somewhere in between lies a happy compromise and I’m pleased to say I discovered such an example from a small, truly family run winery in Mendocino – Kimmel Vineyards. Their vineyards are located on the family ranch in the remote Potter Valley AVA (American Viticulture Area), Here, three generations of the Kimmel family grow and produce Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot.
Originally, the land was used for cattle ranching, when Ed and Lillian Kimmel purchased the 1100 acre property in 1963. By the mid 1980’s Ed noticed that many of his neighbors were pulling up their pear orchards and planting grapevines. Being in the wine business had never crossed his mind, but after chatting with his friend (and Mendocino winemaking pioneer) John Parducci, he decided to change his pastures to vineyards and plant Chardonnay. The grape was well suited to the terrain and, according to Parducci, it was a variety in demand and one that would always have value. His son, Jim Kimmel recalls his father believed it was a good decision because, unlike cattle, “vines didn’t run away in the middle of the night.”
Over the years, they have planted more vineyards, some perched on the hillsides at elevations of 1300 feet and others further down in the valley floor. The soils vary from sandy loam to gravel to Franciscan rock; a hard, fractured clay that dates back to the Mesozoic period. All the vineyards are Certified Sustainable (SIP Certificate) and the family is starting to institute some organic practices to improve the grape quality.
Kimmel Vineyards currently produces two tiers of wine from the 29 acres currently planted to vine. Kimmel Premium - crafted from grapes chosen from select rows of the Middle Block, Hillside and Bench vineyards. The winemaking style, has evolved since the first vintage of Chardonnay in 2007, when the wine was aged for 9 months in 60% new French oak barrels and underwent malo-lactic fermentation to create a ‘California style’ wine.
Now, according, to Jim Kimmel, their desire is to create “wine meant to be paired with food. Styles with lots ML and oak are great to sip by the pool, but they’re not good with food.” They have backed off on the oak, so now the wines are aged for 6 months and only 30% of the barrels used are new oak. As for malo-lactic, depending on the acidity levels at harvest, only a percentage of the wine will be inoculated. When all the barrels are finally blended, the end product will be beautifully balanced.
The family looks forward to welcoming visitors when renovations are completed on the original 1916 ranch house. The building will be part tasting room and part ‘hospitality house’ where the Kimmels, including 91 year old matriarch Lillian, will be able to welcome guests, host charity events and share their family stories along with their wines.
And stories they have. One day, Jim reveals, he was checking his emails and came across a message: “ Hi, My name is also Jim. I host a show on ABC”. His first thought was which one of his friends was playing a joke on him, but then, a few days later, Jim’s mother told him that Jimmy Kimmel had just signed up for the newsletter and had ordered some wine. That was five years ago. The two ‘Jims’ still keep in touch, exchanging emails and photos. “Perhaps one day” Jim (the vineyard owner) told me “I can invite him up for some fly fishing. He likes to fly fish.”
2012 Kimmel Chardonnay, Kimmel Vineyards, Mendocino County
No surprise that this slightly creamy but very fresh and sippable Chardonnay won Gold at the Sunset International Wine Competition. The nose and palate are brimming with ripe, juicy, Honeycrisp apple and nectarine accented with white floral notes, soft butterscotch and just a hint of oak. Fresh pear and pineapple join with touches of spicy ginger and vanilla on the lingering finish. 0% residual sugar 100% Chardonnay 230 cases produced.
Currently, you can find Kimmel Vineyard’s food friendly wines online at www.kimmelvineyards.com where you can either order directly or sign up for one of their Wine Club options.
Disclosure: Wine samples were supplied by the producer. All opinions and descriptions are strictly my own.
Hilarie Larson is a wine writer, and educator, who loves nothing more than traveling to vineyard and food destinations. Join her as she shares some of her experiences on the wine roads.